Of coco-pops, bruises and mathematics

Childhood memories stick around. They hide for years, under your skin, deep and out of  view; but they’re always there. Some time ago, I found myself musing over breakfast wares at the supermarket, weighting options. An isle I’ve regularly perused, weekly or so, without nothing more noticeable happening than eventually making my mind up over one of the few “no palm oil” cereal boxes. Not on that day, though. That day, that ever un-chosen box, as innocuous and colourful a carton as it had always been, triggered something it had failed to trigger earlier. Memories are like tame beasts. They need just one wrong movement, a change of conditions, an inadvertent flash in the corner of the eye to go back to being the wild animal that will eventually go for your throat. It was maybe my daughter’s fault: by being born, she allowed my childhood memories to resurface so violently.

Coco-pops in the cool morning air are among the most characteristic memories from my childhood holidays. I do not remember those comforting bowls of cereal with fondness. Their cool crispiness would dot a line through my long Italian summers, day after day. Waking up, making my way through bright sunlit halls to the kitchen. My father was out, for a morning walk or a swim down at the lake, or just grocery shopping. Taking the cereal box out, so I’ll be done with breakfast before he’s back, urged by mother or granny. Three months. Three months in which school was out for a kid like me to make the garden the largest of playgrounds. I remember my brother and I turning that big boulder over there, by the bend in the driveway climbing up to the house, in a ship; our destination the lake, bright blue in the gap through the trees. Later. First, out of the box came the cereal.

I remember stretching breakfast. Chewing slowly, taking half-spoonfulls, pausing long to watch the sky and the trees through the window till the cereal lost its crunch, became soggy, discoloured and puffed up. My father would be back in the meantime. He would come around by the kitchen window and address me, bright. Am I ready?, we should start as soon as I’m done eating. His smile conveying excitement and expectation, trepidation even. Imprinting. Trying to induce excitement and expectation, trepidation even, in me. My father’s intelligence often got in his way, placing itself thick and heavy between him and common sense. His rational being applying all the science it contained to the world around it, regardless; laws of physics to the motion of pebbles skipping on water, cognitive science to fashion the minds of his children.

I cherished those bowls, back then. I really liked coco-pops, especially when their crunch hadn’t yet given way, and the cocoa flavour would go so well with the cold milk. I can hardly recall that taste. It blends with the bitter anxiety that would clutch me at that time. I couldn’t see through the next few hours before I could sail my ship with my brother, walk down to the lakeside, learn to swim in my father’s arms, or feed the pigs on the farm down the dusty road to the lake. Their thickness dense and blurred as a rain-battered window. I’d see myself staring at that white space, not having guts enough to let paper and pencil touch in fear of writing the numbers wrong. Mathematics. Mathematics, the authoritarian heritage in which he was brought up, and his struggle to keep up with his brothers. Of course, you should start with the most difficult exercises, once you’ve cracked those ones the rest is easy. Summer mornings, spent walking backwards, blindfolded, through a mathematics textbook.

I especially liked to keep the rice in my mouth, swallowing only after the crunch was gone. The kernels stinging delicately and popping on my tongue as they absorbed the moisture and released the air. Of course I wouldn’t fill my bowl immediately. I would drop a small handful of pops at a time, so they’d always be fresh in the milk. I would touch my legs and feel the dried blood from yesterday’s wounds. Spinning wildly till our knees gave way, riding fast and breaking hard, our bikes leaving marks in the gravel, slipping on the pine needles on our way down to the garage by the backside. Each marked the skin of my thighs of a new web of scratches each day, the storyline of summertime games. Underneath that were the blue and the black. Putting the comma in the wrong position, dividing and forgetting the remainder, failing to see the solution. Each would mark my thighs, too. My father prodding me on and encouraging me to do better, never shouting. It was easy, after all. I had already been through harder ones. He just  hit, with bare hands or with a stick, or a length of baseboard if handy, writing memories below my skin, deep, in black and blue ink that wouldn’t scratch off as dried blood from healed wounds.

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